Canoeing through the River of Relationships

by Gary Watson


As a therapist, engaged couples occasionally ask me to provide pre-marital counseling to make sure they are prepared to live together in wedded bliss. It usually calls to mind many bits of advice I’ve heard about choosing a mate. James Herriot advised to look at how a woman treats her father to determine how she will treat her future husband, but I think Pat McManus had a better idea. “There are people who can’t get within fifteen feet of a canoe without turning psychotic,” he said. I think canoes are probably responsible for more break-ups than infidelity and finances combined. So my first thought about premarital counseling is always to arrange a canoe trip. Nothing tests a relationship quite so well as a trip down the river in a canoe. As the therapist I sit in the middle of the canoe, counseling as the couple navigates the river. Mishaps are certain to arise such as forgetting the drinks, tipping the canoe, and maybe even a substantial canoe leak. The first-time canoeist imagines a day trip in a canoe as a leisurely jaunt down a serene waterway, casually dipping a paddle into the water. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In reality, the trip usually starts with the man directing the woman to the front of the canoe as he explains that he knows everything about canoeing, even though he’s never actually been in one. The first twenty minutes go okay since both parties are too caught up in the freshness of the experience to notice neither of them actually knows how to steer. At the first major bend in the river, or perhaps it’s just a log in the path, they either run aground or onto the log. This is usually greeted with nervous laughter and a vague realization of things to come by the woman, and mild swearing on the part of the man who realizes he should have taken those paddling tips at the canoe livery after all. It also precipitates a heated discussion of how the other person was not paddling properly.

At the second or third major bend in the river, the canoe goes aground again or the occupants get impaled upon a low hanging limb, which sets off alarm bells for the woman who had no intention of getting wet anywhere past her ankles on this trip. Upon seeing her fear regarding the near capsizing, the man often decides that grabbing the sides of the canoe and pretending to tip the canoe over will end the suspense about when they will get completely drenched, thereby lightening the mood a bit. This almost always results in screams of terror on the woman’s part, not to mention finger shaped indentations on the sides of the canoe nearest her.

The next thirty minutes involve futile apologies on the man’s part, and stony silence and a thousand yard stare on the women’s part; but sometimes this is replaced by wild swinging of the paddle as she attempts to use his adam’s apple for a pinata. Now if you imagine other events such as low hanging limbs, mosquitoes, forgotten beverages, and sunburn, you can imagine how the rest of the trip goes. Most couples are considering break up, or homicide, within three hours of a canoe trip.

Now the point here is that one part of being in a healthy relationship is knowing how to handle adversity as a couple. When the paddling gets tough, you can argue and blame your partner, or you can realize you’re still in the canoe together and can get through it together. There will be things you can’t control or predict, and once in a while, you’re going to get soaked. You can get mad at these things and take it out on your partner or make the best of the situation. If you work together and realize your partner is doing the best they can under the circumstances and that they didn’t plan for unfortunate events, you’ll get through it with much less drama; and when the dust settles, your partner will admire you and appreciate how you handled the situation instead of thinking they made a mistake by picking you for a partner.


Gary Watson is a Solution Focused counselor at Turning Point Therapy, LLC. For more information about his counseling practice, please visit